Ishmael Reed, William Blake, and the '60s
According to Shamoon Zamir

by Ralph Dumain

I originally read Zamir's article on Ishmael Reed [1] in the mid-1990s. I collected it as part of my research into the author, who had just published a pioneering book on the philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois [2], and as part of a survey of the journal Callaloo, which focuses on the black literatures of the world. Rereading it now, I find, coincidentally, that it turns out to be quite relevant to recent discussions of the 1960s, as well as to the old Blake@albion discussion of 'Blakes for our time' and Blake, Ginsberg, and the '60s. It also reminds me of Jim Jarmusch's film Dead Man, loosely inspired by Blake and set in the wild West.

Zamir commences with an early poem by Ishmael Reed from 1963, omitted from Reed's collected poems. Here we find not the Afrocentric Reed of his years of fame, but the Yeats-inspired "Time and the Eagle", written on the threshold of Reed's break into the themes he became best known for. Reed wrote Yeatsian visionary poetry in his earliest days, adding an element of parody which would later be his specialty. The transformation can be seen in Reed's signature poem of a few years later, "I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra", which combines his characteristic interests of occult and mystical traditions, black history, Americana, etc., to be found not only in this poem but in related works such as his novel Yellow-Back Radio Broke Down. While I could easily recognize Reed's borrowings from the fascist Carl Jung in Mumbo Jumbo (Jung was also listed in this novel's bibliography), I did not know of other influences such as Yeats or theosophist Madame Blavatsky. It is important to note these formative influences from European traditions as it is to know about Reed's engagement with voudun as ingredients of his "Neo-Hoodoo" approach. Reed combines Yeats, Whitman, and various underground/hidden knowledges and traditions in his work. The Cowboy/Ra poem includes parodic references to Blake's preface to Milton: "bring me my Buffalo horn of black powder . . ."

Zamir develops several themes which prove to be interrelated. First, there are the failed attempts by black writers and jazz musicians of the '60s to collectively organize and control their work. Reed was involved in the literary group Umbra, before leaving New York for the West Coast. Sun Ra also figures into Zamir's narrative, with a surprising conclusion I will discuss later.

Another key theme is the Blakean notion of identity-as-community, as analyzed in Leonard Deen's book. [3]

A third theme is the notion of the gunslinger/outlaw as hero, which becomes pivotal for Reed's mythos.

At first it seemed to me that Zamir was taking the usual road of gullibility with regards to Reed and other black cultural figures, but eventually he not only shows how all these themes are interdependent, but how Reed's vision, and that of the 1960s, ultimately fail.

*   *   *

Zamir outlines adaptions of African religions to New World needs, e.g. the Petro cult of voudon.

Reed ultimately settles on the familiar Western theme of purgation through violence, with attendant masculinist stereotypes.

While the prophetic vision includes satire, it cannot rely on satire alone, according to Zamir.

Zamir finally pulls all this together:

Those 1960s poets who adopted the gunslinger as hero in their reengagement with Whitman dramatized the ambivalent potential of the Transcendentalist self. While the conflictual poetic narratives made explicit the blurred boundaries between Whitman's transcontinental visionary journey and the violent history of Manifest Destiny, the hero wrapped in the aura of the six gun mystique was at the same time himself a reincarnation of what Quentin Anderson has called the "imperial self." In the 1950s and 1960s writers adopted the figure of the outlaw as representative for the creative artist. The outlaw was an ideal actor in the dramatization of the antagonistic relationship between self and society, but the myth of the Western outlaw contained within it an ambivalent resolution of this conflict through acts of violence. Emerson had accepted war as a function of self-reliance and a permanent condition of nature, suggesting that self-reliance was in fact initially a stance against society. While the emergence of the outlaw as artist-hero in the 1960s was also part of an oppositional stance, the literary anarchism could not escape a degree of association with the logic of the then prevalent consensus ideology that offered itself as the end of ideology. The interest here is in Reed's turn to the gunslinger as hero as an acceptance of the unavailability of the prophetic model of resolution in the late 1960s. The alternative of satiric narratives, based on occult rather than dialectical models, maintains double consciousness as an arena of perpetual conflict. Reed's persona takes the moment of conflict as the bridge to the triumph of satire in the vacuum left by the failed Blakean brotherhood of artists. While the final showdown between the Cowboy and Set, initiated as a new beginning at the end of Reed's poem, must still be seen as a continuation of Mental War, the poetic rhetoric there leaves little room for a possible mutuality through art. This turn in the second half of Reed's poem is part of a much broader problematic in Reed's work that is not easily absorbed by sympathetic understanding. [1224]

I did not see this conclusion coming, but this is the crux of Zamir's argument. Everything is in this paragraph. But there's more:

The "I" of "I am a cowboy" is a descendent of the expansive and incorporative selves of Whitman and Emerson. Reed's cowboy hero, confronted with the double consciousness of a divided self, adopts a strategy of inflation, an "unrealistic aggrandizement" of the ego." This process is part of the "shifts from communal modes of self-validation to a psychic self-reliance [that] have always been part of magic and religion, and perhaps of action itself," and have characterized classic texts of American literature." The transition from the Blakean notions of artist and community to the model of the gunslinger reverses the transition from sacrifice to performance in the second stanza and reincarnates the artist as sacrificial priest. This section examines this shift as the site of the imperial self's fullest manifestation and Reed's use of the possibilities of immanence in magic as the vehicle of this appearance. [1224]

On a passage from Yellow-Back Radio Broke Down:

Dionysus descends too easily here. The parody works within the terms of a discourse its seeks to subvert. The obvious sexism (as with the “school marms” and Isis) and show of phallocentrism are facile alternatives to Yeats's anxieties about sex and age. Reed's emotions of excess come as easy as Yeats's losses. The implied construction of this Yeats as representative of the sterility of Western culture (Blake notwithstanding) offers the instant gratification of cliché. [1225]

The 1960s were witness to the fact that, without adequate social forms to hold it, the erotic release of the Bacchae was likely to result in disaster not revolution. This is where malign priests like Charles Manson stepped in. Reed is forced to revert from the controls of art to the repetitive regeneration of violent sparagmos. The eroticism of the famous "mowtown long plays" heralds the return of the Bacchus prototype, the Egyptian god of viticulture. [1226]

While the ecstatic ceremony of "I am a cowboy" may restore the "limb scattered" Osiris of "Time and the Eagle," transforming the poetic hero from passive to active agent, and may be compatible with the patterns of artistic regeneration in Blake, perpetual sacrificial renewal is finally antithetical to the visionary sense. Blake's "The Mental Traveller" rejects the delusions of determinism for the potential of spiritual progress. As Hazard Adams has detailed, when Yeats wrote of Blake's poem in the first version of A Vision, he isolated the single pattern of the poem as the myth of "the perpetual return of the same thing": "Yet the myth must include the Traveller himself, the visionary who comprehends delusion. The Mental Traveller finds his way out of the circle and affirms that man may discover something more than the 'perpetual return of the same thing.'" Unlike the Spenglerian Yeats, Blake asserts "that the cycle whirls to a vortex instead of rolling endlessly in space. That is, one proceeds toward vision if one rejects the idea of history as a simple straight line for the idea of history as cycle. But one attains to vision only when one sees time as a point." In his vacillation between vision and satire the anarchist poet finds himself attracted to the magical powers of the priest as model. But Sun Ra's captaincy of his Ark is finally incompatible with the fully democratic experiment of the Jazz Composers' Guild, and it is telling that, unlike Melville's Pequod, it is the Arkestra, not the Guild, that has survived. While it is true that Sun Ra embodies the spirit of Los, he also steps into a stance ultimately antithetical to Blake and to Whitman by confusing the roles of prophet and priest. Not only does Sun Ra gather up the multiplicity of tradition and innovation in his music into his performance persona of ritual priest and utopian prophet, he presides as priestly leader over the famous, strangely monastic community of his Arkestra. A unique phenomenon in the history of jazz, the members of the Arkestra have often lived together as a commune, following not only Sun Ra's musical leadership, but also his esoteric mystical teachings and his self-help (even dietary) doctrines. [1226]

AHA!

*   *   *

To recapitulate the key points in the batch of quotes from Zamir:

(1) From the Transcendentalist to the imperial self: the Western outlaw is oppositional figure in the fantasy life of the '50s and '60s.

(2) ". . . Reed's turn to the gunslinger as hero as an acceptance of the unavailability of the prophetic model of resolution in the late 1960s. The alternative of satiric narratives, based on occult rather than dialectical models, maintains double consciousness as an arena of perpetual conflict. The alternative of satiric narratives, based on occult rather than dialectical models, maintains double consciousness as an arena of perpetual conflict. Reed's persona takes the moment of conflict as the bridge to the triumph of satire in the vacuum left by the failed Blakean brotherhood of artists." [1224] Blakean or Romantic prophecy has no ground in the world of the '60s, hence Reed's retreat to occultism and inability to move beyond satire. I am also here reminded of Jarmusch's Dead Man, whose world of violence and death in the wild West is totally inhospitable to Blake's prophetic vision, and the would be prophetic voices can only speak through violence.

(3) "This process is part of the 'shifts from communal modes of self-validation to a psychic self-reliance [that] have always been part of magic and religion, and perhaps of action itself,' and have characterized classic texts of American literature." The transition from the Blakean notions of artist and community to the model of the gunslinger reverses the transition from sacrifice to performance in the second stanza and reincarnates the artist as sacrificial priest. This section examines this shift as the site of the imperial self's fullest manifestation and Reed's use of the possibilities of immanence in magic as the vehicle of this appearance." [1224] The American situation encourages an anti-social, heroic stance that can accommodate occultism, but not prophecy. Hence a regression, rather than progress, back to the violence of sacrifice and priestcraft.

(4) "The parody works within the terms of a discourse its seeks to subvert." [1225] Reed's parody is incapable of ethical seriousness; it is perpetually bound within the terms of what it protests. Hence, only a play of archetypes and ideologies is possible.

(5) "The 1960s were witness to the fact that, without adequate social forms to hold it, the erotic release of the Bacchae was likely to result in disaster not revolution. This is where malign priests like Charles Manson stepped in." [1226] While this may be a dubious generalization about the '60s, there is nonetheless a grain of truth in this assertion. The shapelessness though is also an ideological shapelessness and an intellectual failure.

(6) ". . . perpetual sacrificial renewal is finally antithetical to the visionary sense. Blake's 'The Mental Traveller' rejects the delusions of determinism for the potential of spiritual progress. . . . In his vacillation between vision and satire the anarchist poet finds himself attracted to the magical powers of the priest as model. But Sun Ra's captaincy of his Ark is finally incompatible with the fully democratic experiment of the Jazz Composers' Guild, and it is telling that, unlike Melville's Pequod, it is the Arkestra, not the Guild, that has survived. While it is true that Sun Ra embodies the spirit of Los, he also steps into a stance ultimately antithetical to Blake and to Whitman by confusing the roles of prophet and priest. . . ." [1226] Blake rejects the world of domination and violence, and, unlike the let-it-all-hang-out passivity of the counterculture, imposes his own structure of consciousness on the mindless chaos of the fallen world. "Nature has no outline but imagination has." And the surprise deduction about Sun Ra: he also had a prophetic mission, but could only regress to authoritarianism. What does this say about America if only the lust for power can survive within it?

Now, onward. In the '60s, poet Jerome Rothenburg rediscovers shamanism, but he is also wary of the potential of the obsession with the Dionysian to bear unpalatable results [1227]. Reed—a fan of McLuhan—accommodates both the archaic and the hi-tech world. Romantic self-expression undergoes historical mutations. Yeats oscillates between a sense of subjective generative omnipotence and helpless fatalism. British Romanticism checked Yeats' disintegrative tendencies, embodied in the "American" side of his thinking. But European notions of collectivity cannot survive in the American context, and so we see the ultimate ascendance of the American imperial self. Zamir thinks all this has a great attraction for African-American writers. How much of Zamir's view I can swallow, I can't be sure, but the topography he maps gives much ground to explore. However, on a more literal plane, I note Zamir's link between the failure of American writers and musicians to organize themselves collectively—a failure which Reed himself experienced—to certain literary and ideological consequences which bear consideration, regardless of what one thinks of the construct of the imperial self.

By no means does the cowboy or outlaw ethic exhaust the ideological options of the counterculture. The only macho thing that Allen Ginsberg ever did was to keep company with riffraff; otherwise, he was a gentle soul. Sun Ra tried to be a visionary, but in good measure he was a right-wing crackpot. Ishmael Reed does a delicious dish of Western civ, but borrows all his ideas from fascists and ultimately has nothing to offer but a spurious rehashing of the most irresponsible and useless occult themes. Decades later, obsessed with a spurious connection between Blake and the American Indians, Jarmusch makes a great film with a Blake theme but devoid of any real Blakean ideas or a spirit of prophecy. These examples are not encouraging for those who would seek Blakes of our time.

References

[1] Zamir, Shamoon. "The Artist as Prophet, Priest and Gunslinger: Ishmael Reed's 'Cowboy in the Boat of Ra', " Callaloo, vol. 17, no. 4, Fall 1994, pp. 1205-1235. [—> main text]

[2] Zamir, Shamoon. Dark Voices: W.E.B. Du Bois and American Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. [—> main text]

[3] Deen, Leonard W. Conversing in Paradise: Poetic Genius and Identity-as-Community in Blake's Los. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983. [—> main text]

Written 17-18 February 2004, edited & uploaded 25 February 2004
©2004 Ralph Dumain


Ishmael Reed: Literary Ambulance Chaser? by R. Dumain

Review of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo by R. Dumain

On the Significance of The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
by R. Dumain

The Jazz Avant-Garde, Mysticism & Society: Meaning, Method & the Young Hegelians by R. Dumain

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe

William Blake Study Guide


Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 25 February 2004

©2004-2010 Ralph Dumain